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Exhibits Alive!

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Live animals aren't unheard of at the Museum.
A Mexican Red Knee Tarantula spider.
This stunning Mexican red knee tarantula lives mainly on the Pacific coast of Mexico.
© AMNH/R. Mickens

On July 28, the Museum’s new exhibition Spiders Alive! will offer visitors access to the hidden worlds of arachnids, from red-kneed tarantulas and burrowing trapdoor spiders to the feared black widow and gargantuan goliath bird eater.

The Museum has a long tradition of live-animal exhibitions, from Frogs: A Chorus of Colors to The Butterfly Conservatory. When selecting live species for shows, curators and exhibition staff must consider lighting, placement, temperature, and in some cases, an animal’s age or sleeping habits. “Animals have personalities and preferences,” says Museum Curator Darrel Frost, who oversaw the 2010 Lizards and Snakes exhibition. “There are some fascinating animals that can’t be shown because they don’t do well with people or the exhibition environment. To put them on display, you’d have to put them in an uncomfortable situation.”

Spiders present their own challenges in a live exhibition. For one, they’re hardwired to hide. “A spider’s instinct is to be as far away from you as possible,” says Curator Emeritus Norman Platnick, the Museum scientist in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology who oversaw the exhibition. “You have to work to be bitten. It’s a last resort for them.” Most spiders blend into their habitats and spend much of their time lying in wait for prey, their stillness making them even more difficult to spot.

The Exhibition Department has a few strategies planned to maximize the number of spiders visitors will see while keeping the animals within their comfort zone. All of the habitats will be custom made for maximum visibility and ease for the particular species.

For example, since tarantulas enjoy dark, protected spaces, many of their enclosures will include a piece of bark to serve as shelter. The cages will be oriented so that visitors will be able to see the underside of the wood, as well as the “hidden” spider, who will still feel safe and secure. Some of the tunneling arachnids, such as desert hairy scorpions, will be displayed in a matrix of individual “condos.” And the branches in the enclosures of web-building spiders will be positioned to encourage them to build webs in visible locations—so that even if a spider is hiding, its out-of-body artwork can still be on show.

Creating a display-friendly habitat is just one important ingredient in a live exhibition. Sometimes, human presenters are the other solution. In Spiders Alive!, staff explainers will use handheld microscopes that project onto a large screen to point out miniscule features of spider anatomy, such as their fine hairs and fangs. They will also demonstrate, through careful handling, that reasons for fearing arachnids are greatly exaggerated. Spider venom, after all, evolved to work on small insects rather than humans.

As with any live show, there will always be an element of the unexpected. There’s no guaranteeing that the orb weavers in Spiders Alive! won’t build their webs on the cage doors that will have to be opened at night for feeding. And while the Exhibition Department hopes to coax the trapdoor spider to build its burrow along the glass to showcase its underground, web-lined home, nature is never required to cooperate.

A longer version of this story appears in the Summer 2012 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.